Thursday, 31 December 2009

Happy New Year

I'll be more brief than in the Christmas Message! :-)

To all those who've touched mine and Louise's lives in 2009, many thanks and here's wishing you all, wherever you are in the world, a happy, healthy, prosperous and above all a healthy 2010.

All the best.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Worcester by Park & Ride

I used the new Park & Ride site at Sixways in Worcester yesterday.

The County Council had a special promotion allowing you free travel if you downloaded a voucher from the Park & Ride website. Did this and presented it to the driver.......who of course knew nothing about it! To his credit, though, he persevered about issuing us with a ticket and did eventually do so. Glad there wasn't a queue behind us though. And it was worth it as we had free parking and free travel for two in a city notoriously difficult for motoring.

Unlike most Park & Ride schemes, though, this one is actually the extension of two "normal suburban bus routes, so the journey to the City Centre was actually through a series of 20th century estates of various vintages and quality. Nothing if not a slice of life, though.

On the return journey, one bus appeared in the bus station ,was parked up and then the driver just "vanished". No idea if it had failed or if a driver wasn't available or what. Various members of staff appeared, chatted on mobiles and disappeared but no one thought to tell the ever-lengthening queue what was going on. It was also noticeable that no-one seemed bothered by this. Do Worcester's public transport users just casually accept poor service? Is it par for the course? Why didn't an inspector just come over and chat to the queue and explain what had gone wrong and how the issue was being resolved?

And don't get me started about the service in the woefully-understaffed Slug & Lettuce in Worcester. That was beyond crap! Avoid at all costs, despite it being in a delightful 18th century converted church.

Good job Worcester is lovely to make up for it!

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Death Penalty

Sad to hear today of the execution in China of UK Citizen Akmal Shaikh.

I am firmly of the belief that when in a particular country you should - must - obey that country's laws. (Indeed, part of my reasons for supporting Gary Mckinnon in his campaign not to be extradited to the Us is because anything he did, he did on British soil.)

This does not, however, excuse the use of the death penalty, to which I am always 100% opposed. Whether it acts as a deterrent, rids society of scum, thins out the prison population or simply provides society with revenge, taking a life is always morally wrong. I am sometimes in favour of life sentences, which mean lifetime imprisonment. If this was done more often then I don't think there would be the public clamouring for the death penalty that there is from time to time in the UK.

But it is always wrong to kill and China is quite simply wrong to do so. Even more bizarre to me is the way in which liberal, advanced democracies like the USA and Japan practice it.

The issue is moral, simple and just. Punish but do not kill.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Wow!

Hey, my Blog has been quoted in another Blog.

Does that make me Officially Famous?!

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Back to work!

I did a tour in Clerkenwell today. For those of you that don't know, this is an area of London just beyond the fringes of the mediaeval City and one with a lot of stories to tell people. I was able to fit in Elizabeth I, Hercule Poirot, Hugh Grant.......and a Musical Coalman!

It was a really agreeable group, too, which always makes the job that much more civilized. We all ended up in a pub afterwards and one of the clients even confessed to having read my Blog, which is reassuring. (Hello John!)

It's a funny period between Christmas and New Year, isn't it? Some people are at work, some not and it always seems to me to have that not-quite-a-holiday feel to it. Still, that means that more people are free to enjoy themselves.......like taking the odd guided walk. (And mine are odder than most, I'm told.) This week I have the delights of Worcester and Stratford-upon-Avon to show off, as well as a wintry ghost tour in Birmingham.

In the meantime, though, Louise and I are alone together for the first time over Christmas and are about to enjoy curried turkey, so I'd better leave the Blog alone and pour the wine!

Friday, 25 December 2009

Ian's Christmas Message

Can I send my sincere Christmas greetings to everyone who reads my occasional ramblings here.

To those of you who have booked tours with me throughout the year, to those of you who have given Louise, Mum and myself friendship and support and to those of you who are far away but of whom we think often: “thank you”.

To those of you with religious or spiritual beliefs, may the spirit of Christmas shine all around you…….and to those of you without, well, just have a jolly good time and enjoy the seasonal festivities anyway!

Merry Christmas to you all.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

The Enemy Within

I may well turn a few heads with this but I’m going to write it anyway because too often it goes unsaid.

No-one who read any of yesterday’s reports following the guilty verdicts in the Fairfield Post Office raid case can fail to have been moved by the testimony of Craig Hodson-Walker’s mother and fiancée. To hear his mother telling of how she saw her son shot in front of her eyes and to hear the fiancée Lisa say that her “whole world has collapsed” was heartbreaking.

How can anyone do this? Well, I can’t profess to understand why at all. However, perhaps a closer look at the defendants’ backgrounds might say something?

One of them had not only already raided a Post Office (in King’s Norton in 2002) but had been convicted, given a gaol sentence and was out and able to do it again. Another had three convictions, two for Post Office raids and a third for robbing a security van. So much for the system punishing, rehabilitating and protecting there, then.

They all came from areas on the fringes of Birmingham which are – effectively – vast zones where crime, both serious and minor, is accepted by too many people as “normal”.

It is a stark, unfashionable but unassailable fact of life that our towns and cities are surrounded by areas where the basics that much of society takes for granted simply don’t apply. Criminals may not be the majority of people in these areas but they are sure as hell a sizeable minority. The Frankleys, the Druids Heaths and the Castle Vales of Birmingham, Bristol’s Southmead, Newcastle’s Killingworth and Leeds’ Seacroft are all examples of places where decency and mutually-respectful behaviour is simply not a consideration for many people. You have only to see the way they keep their houses (and feel even more passionately sorry for the poor sods who live there and who do play by the rules and try to do things properly; life must be hell for them).

But the offensive, out of control, unorganised mobs that inhabits these places are terrifying. They give us the graffiti, the metal shutters on shops, the burned-out litter bins and the broken windows. Communities which look unloved and where such damage is caused by those who live there. And it can become more serious. Look at the case of Fiona Pilkington, who took her own life after yobs tormented her and her daughter in Hinckley. She called for police help 33 times, without any discernible effect. The police, it seems, simply accept this type of behaviour as normal for such areas.

Indeed, having mentioned these yob-rule areas in big cities, it’s worth remembering that the same applies in plenty of smaller places, too. In the beautiful, civilized cathedral city of Lichfield, Michael Eccles was beaten to death on his way home from a shop in the notorious Dimbles area. And you can find the same estates, effectively abandoned by their inhabitants and those in power, everywhere from Weston-super-Mare to Carlisle.

For most of us, like the Hodson-Walkers in Fairfield, you study, you get a job, you work hard and support your family and get some of the things you want in life. We all makes mistakes – me included – but for the feral shit which exists on the edge of of society, this normal life progression does not apply and is never thought of. We are now into second or even third generations who have never worked in the conventional sense and who don’t understand the work ethic that is the basis of our society and its achievements. “I want that, I can’t afford it, so I’ll take it anyway.”

Craig Hodson-Walker’s mother Judy described the raiders as “the dregs of society” and how right she is. These people do not have the values that the rest of us have and they could destroy our society as easily – if not more easily – than climate change or terrorism.

These people are truly the enemy within.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Into Town

Following on from my recent rant about the pros and cons of shopping at Merry Hill, I ventured into Birmingham City Centre yesterday to do some more (theoretically last minute!) shopping.

Although by no means perfect, I have to say it was a much more pleasant experience and underlines my belief in shopping in “real” places.

Yes, there were a few undesirables hanging about but there was a much bigger choice of places to shop and things to buy (they have an Ian Allan for starters!). It might be different if you're interested in buying clothes as a leisure activity but I'm not so that doesn't count.

It was very sad though to see Border's Bookshop having their closing-down sale. I first encountered the Borders brand on a visit to Glasgow a few years ago and at once hoped that they would one day open a Birmingham shop. As well as an “intelligent” selection of books, they have the best range of magazines on the High Street and their staff always (always) seemed happy with their jobs and happy to be helping you. Seeing the place strewn with books looking like a slightly upmarket jumble sale was therefore especially sad but I suppose their “intelligent” market is the one most likely to use Amazon which has perhaps been their downfall. It was even sadder than the demise of Ottakar's (at least that and its staff lived on as part of Waterstone's).

City Centre shopping is evidently not dead, though, whatever the media might try to have us believe from time to time.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

In the Steps of Doctor Foster

I’ve been working in Gloucester today and travelled to and from the job by train.

I’d like to do that more often but a combination of often extortionate fares, lack of left luggage facilities at stations and the unreasonableness of wanting to travel early on a Sunday often conspire against it for my jobs.

Today, though (being a Saturday) I managed to get a good deal (cheaper than the petrol and parking) and trains ran “just right” from one of my local stations, so the train it was. Well done again, Cross Country. Oh and their online ticket booking site doesn't charge a booking fee, even for journeys with other railway companies,so I'm happy to give it a plug here.

The journey was actually rather lovely. I was a little surprised (and pleased) at how busy trains were at 7.00am on a Saturday and then speeding through the Worcestershire countryside as day broke was very civilized. It was helped by a largish coffee on board for the princely sum of £1!

I always enjoy Gloucester jobs. The place has loads of good stories to share with people: nursery rhymes, murder, Roman retirees, seventies BBC costume drama and a curious juxtaposition of both Beatrix and Harry Potter! Today’s enjoyment was helped somewhat by a group of regular clients, some of whom I’ve seen more of this year than some members of my family.

Coming back, the Cotswold and Worcestershire countryside was bathed in a lovely golden afternoon light and felt distinctly satisfied with the day. (Although the coffee had gone up: it was £1.50 on the return leg!) I also noticed that he train took the famous Lickey Incline, once such a barrier to steam-hauled trains, as though it wasn’t even there.

Warwick tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Digbeth Coach Station

I would consider taking National Express coaches from time to time. Okay, they don't have the ability to cruise past traffic jams in the way a train does but they can be pretty comfortable these days and the prices can be very competitive. The only problem with that being based in Birmingham is the location of the coach station.

The much-vaunted new Digbeth Coach Station is due to open on Monday but it (like its temporary replacement) are that little bit “out” of the City centre in a still-not-very-brilliant area. If I arrive in Birmingham by public transport, it will be in the Corporation Street area, a fair haul (and an unpleasant one at that) down to Digbeth. Although I'll put up that in the day, it's not something I'd contemplate at night and it's not as if there's any reasonable parking nearby either.

When Digbeth was replaced, the opportunity really should have been taken to relocate the coach station somewhere more central. The Snow Hill site would have done. All other towns seem to have their coach stations in the middle, usually in a place used by local buses, too. Why not Brum?!

That said, I do look forward to seeing the new coach station. I hope it manages to match the similar fine facilities now in Manchester and Bristol (for example). I just wish it was more central!

Chiltern Railways

Chiltern Railways is again becoming something of a victim of its own success. Travelling on a morning trip from The Hawthorns to London yesterday, I was amazed at just how full the train was, with people standing from after we left Banbury.

It's good to see so much more use of trains generally these days. I'm aware that I seem to have been using them much more lately, not just to and from London, either. Unfortunately, if people's experience of rail journeys is negative (“I had to stand all the way to London”) then they will just head back to their cars, leaving public transport back in the status of being a “distress purchase”. In particular, although I'm used to Chiltern providing only a trolley service (and then only at peak times), I'm surprised that there's no buffet car on Cross Country Trains between Birmingham and Manchester.

But despite all this, rail still has much to commend it. Certainly, I prefer to relax, read, write and watch the changing panorama from a train than to slog up and down the M40 or M6 in the car, which is the ultimate alternative. If there's a station near when I'm going and if there's a train when I want it (two big “ifs”, those!) then as long as the price is roughly comparable (another big consideration) then I'll take it.

Birmingham: A London Point of View

It was good to see advertising posters at Marylebone station yesterday extolling the virtues of some of the things that make a trip up to Birmingham worthwhile for a Londoner. Instead of the usual meaningless pictures of happy, upwardly-mobile couples staring into one another's eyes with feigned sophistication, the very real “draws” of the Birmingham Christmas Market and Aston Hall by Candlelight were being promoted to a metropolitan audience.

These are what make coming to Brum worth the effort and dispel any myths about Birmingham and I hope they encourage people to come and see the place for themselves.

Well done whoever went ahead with this campaign.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Advent of Advent

Just back from our first carol concert.

Yes, I know, it’s only 7 December and it isn’t really Christmas. But it was in the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham so any excuse really (one of the perks of having a wife who works for the University).

Sir Aston Webb’s Great Hall is a superb building, one of the finest “indoor spaces” of Birmingham and something which was intended to convey a sense of “greatness” to the then new University. It does that just as effectively today!

The University Singers (processing in by candlelight) were a joy hear, everyone was suitably uplifted by readings, a sermon, prayers and – of course! – some rousing singing.

I feel Christmassy for the first time this year.

Dark Mornings, Dark Nights.......

Up in the dark, home in the dark. For the first time ever this year, I’m finding winter depressing. I’ve never really felt like that in previous winters so I’m not sure what’s causing it this year.

Still, I’m about to write and send out a series of invoices, which will make me feel ever so much better! (Yes, I know, unacceptable face of capitalism and all that. Still, I could have worked for a bank…….)

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Salisbury

After my rather negative musings on Dudley today, I though I’d had my cumuppance this morning as the weather en route to Salisbury was truly dreadful, with driving rain and – more treacherously – lots of standing water. I had visions of taking a bedraggled and slightly miserable group around Wiltshire’s great cathedral city.

In the event, though, the rains cleared in time for the walk and Salisbury was in fact bathed in a truly delightful golden light. It was everything I had hoped for. Alot of water had come down, though; the Avon was in spectacular form on the site of the old City Mill, while the local branch of J. D. Wetherspoon’s seemed to have been on flood alert earlier!

Funnily enough, Salisbury Cathedral is home to one of the four surviving Exemplar Copies of the Magna Carta. One of the others in in Lincoln, to which I took a group only a couple of weeks ago. I seem to be becoming a bit of a Magna Carta groupie!

The group were a pleasurable lot, too, which helps somewhat. I love it when they can give me a laugh. Upon showing them Mitre House, an old building where new Bishops are traditionally robed before their enthronement and which is now a ladies’ clothes shop, they came up with a lovely image of the Bishops coming out of the ladies’ changing rooms in cope and mitre. I added the inevitable “Does my crozier look big in this?”!

A weekend of contrasts, Dudley and Salisbury. My work is nothing if not varied…….

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Dudley

I did a guided walking tour of Dudley today.

Okay, as is so often the case with my walks, it's perhaps not a town to promise much. But of course it's stuffed full of stories. I managed to fit in Saxon Chieftains, Duncan Edwards, a couple of breweries, the inventor of Oxygen and Laurel & Hardy. The group were fun and it even stayed dry.

Unfortunately - and there's no escaping this - it was a terribly depressing place to be. The town just looks so drab. Discount shops, messy signs, litter, broken statues and just a sense of being second rate were everywhere. Beattie's, its last department store and now part of the House of Fraser Group, is closing down. The phrase "last nail in the coffin" keeps coming to mind.

Few towns' fall from grace has been as spectacular as that of Dudley. A combination of a more mobile population and the opening of the Merry Hill Shopping Centre conspired to rob the place of all but its most poverty-stricken shoppers. Yes, I realise that that sounds very snobbish. But poorer shoppers don't spend much and it puts the town into a downward spiral from which I can't easily see an escape.

Certainly, Dudley has a heritage background unmatched in the industrial West Midlands. The view of the Castle on its dramatic hilltop which appear unexpectedly between buildings are a joy to behold. But the heritage industry is hampered by the general grottiness of the place and nice views alone don't generate money.

I've spent years trying to talk up the West Midlands, for much of that time in a professional capacity and it's an honour to do so. I've enjoyed showing people the most unpromising towns and taken great pleasure from seeing the looks of surprise on their faces as you make them interested in Bilston, Halesowen, Wednesbury or Tipton.

But for some reason today in Dudley, I had a little twinge that I was wasting my time.

I hope it's a passing phase and I'll be enthusing about the place here very soon. I hope so. But don't take any bets just yet.......

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Our Friends in the North

I'm spending two days working in Manchester. Not doing guided tours (definitely not my area) but chairing study days for A and AS Level students.

It's interesting work. Today was a study of Bram Stoker's Dracula. Tomorrow it's the Russian Revolution.

I seem to be spending a lot of time in Manchester doing this lately and I'm actually becoming rather fond of the place. I've never really subscribed to this Birmingham v Manchester rivalry stuff. It is (shock, horror) possible for two cities to be "great"; it's not something exclusive.

Okay so Manchester has some pretty grotty bits even in the centre (but then so does Brum). A lot of the new developments of which Manchester is so proud are actually pretty bland and don't stir me in the least. (How can people get so excited about a bloody Arndale Centre?!) And their German Christmas Christmas Market isn't a patch on the real thing (ie Birmingham's).

But they have a decent and growing tramway system and Piccadilly Station is an absolute credit to the place. Especially if you compare it to New Street! (Although it's not nearly as well sited as the latter.) And the old addage is true: people are generally friendlier the further North you go.

I wish I had more time to explore, though. The Art Gallery is splendid (not the Lowry, over in Salford; the Art Gallery which - Brummies take note! - also has a fine collection of Pre-Raphaelites). And being a mercantile city, some of the Victorian commercial buildings are just jaw-droppingly beautiful.

We are lucky in England to have so many wonderful cities and I count myself lucky that I get to visit so many and that I'm blessed with the interest to get so much joy out of "experiencing" them.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Merry Hell

Took Mum Christmas shopping to Merry Hill today. Sorry, "Westfield Merry Hill". Does anyone ever call it that?

Anyway, if there is a recession on, there wasn’t much sign of it there, judging by the full car park and the crowds inside.

Mum still isn’t terribly mobile (although much improved over this time last week) so it was a car job, which of course added to the congestion approaching the place, even on a weekday. Dudley Council appear to have been digging up the same stretch of Saltwells Road in Dudley Wood since before the Norman Conquest.

It also struck me that the centre really isn’t a brilliant place to reach by public transport, despite not really being “out of town” but embedded within the built up area of the West Midlands. Yes, it has a large network of bus services; but when the roads get congested, they get held up, too. It really needs a segregated rail (well, Metro) connection. I know that Midland Metro’s Line 3 is supposed to serve the place one day but at the current rate of progress on that, I’ll travel on the first tram free of charge as I’ll be a Senior Citizen by the time it gets built.

So, although Mum liked it and we managed to get a lot done…….it’s not really my sort of place. Rather than a "real town", it looks like Paradise with a Frontal Lobotomy. In any case, it doesn’t have enough bookshops!

In Support of Gary McKinnon 2

Back at the end of July, I blogged in support of Gary McKinnon, the computer hacker threatened with extradition to the US for hacking into sensitive American computer networks from his home in North London.

The UK Home Secretary Alan Johnson halted extradition proceedings temporarily in October to study new medical evidence (Gary has Asperger's Syndrome) before approving Gary's right to appeal to a European Court.

Well, on Friday last the Home Office said that "The Secretary of State is of the view that McKinnon's extradition would not be incompatible with his [human] rights", which makes it look as though Gary will be sent to the US. All that stands in the way of that now is a judicial review of the Home Secretary's decision.

Whatever the legal rights and wrongs of this, whether or not Gary has Asperger's, whether or not the US is looking for a "scape goat", whether or not what he did was wrong, whether or not the US system is fit to try him are all questions I won't dwell on here.

Suffice it to say that the concept of sending a UK citizen to another country to stand trial FOR AN OFFENCE COMMITTED WHILE HE WAS IN BRITAIN is simply unjust. As far as I can see it, offend here = try here. End of story.

You can read more about Gary's case at http://freegary.org.uk/ .




The Queen II

I was very intrigued by last night's second installment of the Channel 4 drama-documentary "The Queen".

It portrayed the end of the sixties and the early seventies as a time of rampant republicanism which - although young at the time - I really don't remember. Yes, there were the occasional rent-a-quotes from anti-monarchist MP Willie Hamilton, who became famous for his views on the subject but this wasn't something I remember of the time. The population seemed more concerned with power cuts and industrial unrest between the government and the miners.

I think that Channel 4 are being quite brave with this series in choosing actors and actresses to communicate what was going on, rather than becoming obsessed with them looking exactly like the characters portrayed. Samantha Bond (normally thought of these days as Miss Moneypenny!) did bear more than a passing resemblance to HRH of the time but the actors playing Wilson and Heath were plainly there to communicate the respective PMs' roles rather than to do an impression. It worked.

I'm not at all convinced by the scenes of HRH turning to brush away a tear. I'm not saying she doesn't cry but I very much doubt she'd do it in the presence of a Civil Servant or a politician!

Looking forward to tonight's portrayal by Susan Jameson.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Electrical Gadgetry

I went to see Mum this afternoon to find that she’d been sent a couple of electricity-saving devices free of charge by British Gas…….despite the fact that she doesn’t buy her electricity from them!

One was one of those gizmos which shows how much power you’re using at any given time. Is it a "Consumption Meter"? Anyway, it took quite a bit of setting up and programming, even for a super-technical whiz-kid like myself (yeah, right) but gives some interesting results. In particular, turning on a kettle or the oven is actually a bit scary. In that sense, they’re a good idea; it just struck me that the stuff that’s easier to turn off (eg lights, radio) is exactly the sort of equipment which uses only negligible amounts. to really save money you need to stop eating and drinking. That would seem to be very effective.

More bewildering was the other “gift”: one of those multi-point sockets which turns off equipment left in stand-by mode, mainly the TV set. This took for ever to set up and – frankly – didn’t work very effectively. Things stubbornly refused to come back to life when turned back on. Dreading an urgent telephone call to "come quickly" because “the telly doesn’t work”, I promptly unistalled it…….

Wouldn’t mind one of the consumption meters though. I wonder if our supplier (Atlantic) feels like sending us one?

Bath Time!

One of the perks of being a “Blue Badge” guide is that sometimes you get invited “behind the scenes” to places not normally or often accessible to the general public. Thus over the years I’ve climbed up to see Big Ben, been to the Birmingham Assay Office and so on.

Well, on Thursday, I was able to join a group of guides going “behind the scenes”

at the Roman Baths in, er, Bath. We toured several of the tunnels not open to the public and saw Roman remains virtually as they were found by early 19th century archaeologists. We even saw where water used to be siphoned off for the Mineral Water Hospital and where the spring was “bypassed” in the seventies to prevent contamination.

Really fascinating stuff.

Incidentally, behind the scenes or not, the Roman Bath is well worth visiting, either if you’ve never been before or else if you’ve not been for a long time. There are some very well done displays and models now and I never fail to be captivated by the head of Minerva which is one of the principal artefacts in the Bath.

Must get myself to Thermae though one of theses days.

Walsall Metrobus Farewell


I had a Saturday off this weekend (rare!) which allowed me to head off to Walsall to watch the last day of operation of MCW Metrobuses there. For the non cognoscenti, Metrobuses were double decker buses built in Birmingham from 1977 until 1989.

WMPTE, the then local transport organisation in the West Midlands, showed considerable loyalty to local industry by building up a vast fleet of these buses. These then passed to their private-sector successor (variously called West Midlands Travel, Travel West Midlands and now National Express West Midlands) on privatisation in 1986.

The fleet has been gradually running down over the past few years but they have still been part of the local scene for so long that their passing attracted a fair bit of local enthusiast attention.

I think it’s fair to say that there was a certain type of person taking photographs yesterday. Actually, there were three types: the out-and-out anoraks (plentiful), the middle aged single men with Received Pronunciation and canvas camera bags (less plentiful) and er, me (unique).

There are some photos on my Facebook page at:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=174936&id=663674847&l=acc13c8c74

3 MBS

I have lots of “bitty” stuff to do this morning and feel in the need for some relaxing music. Normally, this involves pressing the BBC Radio 3 button but from time to time (including this morning) I listen to a Melbourne classical music station called 3MBS.

From what I can gather, it’s actually an amateur station (by which I mean it’s run by volunteers for the love of it, not that it’s in any way sub-standard, which it certainly isn’t). Australians use the term "community station" for this, an idea mooted many time in the UK but which has never really happened. Certainly not like this, anyway!

The musical choice (and the commentaries that go with it) of 3MBS are done with a great deal of intelligence and it’s a bit of a text book case in Good Radio. If you can listen to radio on line it’s well worth doing so. (In the unlikely event that you’re in Melbourne you can even hear it on FM!)

"The Queen"

Did anyone watch the first of Channel 4’s drama documentaries “The Queen” last night? Although a lot of what went on in private was obviously conjecture and Emilia Fox plainly wasn’t Helen Mirren, I thought it was rather well done.

Drama-doc was a genre that ITV (and latterly Channel 4) used to do rather well and done properly can be a very effective story-telling tool.

I’m looking forward to the subsequent instalments, with a different actress playing HM in each, at a different time in her life.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Modesty Forbids!

We went to a SPICE Birmingham Turkish Bath evening last night. While relaxing in the Laconium (look it up!) someone said to me that he’d recently been on a town walk around Warwick “with a chap who was a professional tourist guide" and who "was really interesting”.

Modesty forbade…….but someone else told him instead! :-))

Sincere praise if nothing else, anyway.

I'm Back!

I’ve been missing from the Blogosphere for a while now. The usual reason for that is that things are frantically busy and that’s as true now as ever.

A lot’s happened since I last wrote.

Mum had a quite serious “flare up” of her arthritis last week, while I was working in Manchester. As if that wasn't enough, I managed to pull a muscle in my leg. When we both ended up getting to the doctors', we had a walking stick each! Fortunately both maladies seem to be under control now. (I've often complained about getting appointments with my GP; encouragingly, I was given an appointment for 40 minutes after I called and Mum was telephone back by her doctor within an hour of her problems. Evidently, they're getting better.)

In the way of work, I’ve been lucky enough to have had a commission to do a tour of Lincoln, which I carried out a week ago (just as the leg was starting to play up!). Lincoln is a very beautiful city and – despite dire predications of continuous rain – it stayed dry for most of the walk with a very appreciative group. One of the participants, Rob Gillespie, as a professional photographer and his photos of the day are visible online at

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2039406&id=1534093772

Make a date and take yourself to Lincoln sometime (but unless you really like crowds, avoid the Christmas Market!).

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Coincidence

I parked in a side road in Royal Leamington Spa today and - when I returned - found that the car next to me had a registration number identical except for one letter. I wonder what he chances are of that happening?

Friday, 20 November 2009

Local Hero

We use the term "emergency services" so often we don't often pause to think exactly what it means. These people, though, are the ones we rely on to be there and to protect us when we most need it and when we least expect it.

That makes the death of Cumbria Police Constable Bill Barker so especially poignant, swept away to his death while helping motorists from a doomed bridge in Workington.

The scenes of devastation in Cumbria have been quite shocking but most possessions, however precious, can be replaced. Life can't. PC Barker's family can only take comfort from the fact that he was helping others when he lost his life.

Local Hero? National hero.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

To Manchester and Back

I've been to Manchester and back today. The trains were on time and comfortable and - apart from costing £43.00 - this really is the way to travel.

I wish the trains were built less to look like the inside of aircraft and that they were longer (it gets crowded and feels a bit claustrophobic) but maybe that "aircraft" ambience is what attracts people more used to air travel these days?

One big plus point was that I was able to work on the train. I have a lot of deadlines lately and I really needed some productive work time without interruptions. The two journeys allowed that to happen and have effectively given me an evening off this evening.

I noticed that the Metrolink (Manchester's tramway system) was giving free rides today as a sot of "thank you" to regular passengers for putting up with a great deal of disruption in recent months during a big upgrade. Unfortunately, as I was there to earn a living I didn't actually get a tram ride. Not fair! :-)

My final musing on the Cottonopolis is to ask this: In the eighties, when Manchester was such a grim, post-industrial hole of a city, the Piccadilly Gardens were a lovely oasis of greenery in the centre; today, with Manchester enjoying an urban renaissance worthy of Birmingham, Newcastle or Leeds, why have they concreted over the gardens and placed a silly, unfinished-looking concrete wall of the type demolished 20 years ago this month in Berlin in the middle?

As they say Oop North: there's now so queer as folk!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Channel Five News "Changing Faces"

It’s not often that Channel 5 (sorry “Five”) grabs my attention for doing something splendid and worthwhile but they certainly have with this week’s policy of getting someone with a facial disfigurement to read the news.

If you've not hear of this, click on the link and go and take a look at what it's all been about.

Like a lot of “disabilities” - and I’m using that term in the very broadest sense of the word – what seems remarkably/different/surprising/shocking at first rapidly becomes ordinary or commonplace once we’ve seen it for a while.

See someone in a wheelchair, with dark glasses and a white stick, unable to speak or with a missing limb and the chances are that that’s the “feature” you notice about them straight away. Spend a little time in their company though and it rapidly becomes something that you no longer “notice”, not in the literal sense but just that you no longer think only of this “feature". You listen to what they’re saying, what they’re doing, what they can tell you, etc.

Society does a good job of hiding people with facial disfigurements. If this action by Five makes them seem a little bit less “unusual” then it will have been worth it.

What a positive thing to be writing about.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sublime Day in Wells






I was doing a tour in Wells yesterday and arrived very early just to check things out. It was entirely worth the early start as – after a terrible rainy Saturday – Sunday was just wonderful. The sun rose over flooded fields in the most photogenic way possible and – as I was walking around the City before the group arrived – it looked simply stunning.

I regretted not having a camera with me but then remembered that my mobile has a camera which I seldom use; so I started snapping. They’re not brilliant photos but they do convey the sense of this amazing golden early sunshine and deserted streets.

When the group arrived, they were great, too, which always helps. For all the hassles, which we all have, I spent much of yesterday thinking what a great job I have. If you’ve never been to Wells – and it amazes me how few people have – then go. It’s always been one of my favourite places. Yesterday I felt as though I could have spent the rest of my life there.

Friday, 13 November 2009

The Dreaded Receptionist

Had to take my mother to a hastily-arranged hospital appointment today.

Excellent service in most ways:

Rapid appointment (she's become poorly quite quickly and needed to be seen; we were seen in a clinic with three days).

Excellent doctor (good communication skills, excellent bedside manner, quickly found the problem and outlined solutions).

Prescribed medication and then asked us to come back in three weeks.

Then - of course - we encountered the Receptionist. Where do they find these people? Is there some sort of factory turning out middle aged women with stern faces, an inability to concentrate on you rather than their friend standing next to them and a default option that you can't have something?

No, we can't have an appointment three weeks today. No, nor in the days around it. No nor four weeks today. Well, you have an appointment anyway, for next May! Yes, we knew that; this was for something else. Well, we'll have to call the doctor's secretary on Monday. My name? Why would you want my name? Ad infinitum.

We now have the promise of an appointment on Friday 4 December 2009. Notwithstanding the telephone call on Monday. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Italian Restaurant With a Difference

We had a very pleasant meal tonight at one of our favourite local restaurants, "Casa Italia" on Hagley Road in Bearwood.

We normally head there when we have something to celebrate but tonight just felt like it for particular reason. Once we'd dodged the torrential downpour on the way from the car park and walked past the once notorious Cuddles massage parlour (!) there was as usual a delightful meal waiting for us.

Although Italian, we don't enjoy pizza or pasta when we go there. Rather they do the best steaks either of us have ever tasted. Their profiteroles are pretty amazing, too, although we didn't stretch to a third course tonight as we're trying to eat less than our own body weight at meal times these days. We're thinking of going there for New Year's Eve, though. If you're in or near Brum, this is somewhere definitely worth trying out.




Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Thought Provoking Radio

I was listening to BBC Radio Nottingham while driving this morning, not a station I ever have reason to listen to.

In their run up to coverage of the two minutes silence at 11.00am they put out what was a really intelligent and thought provoking piece involving a member of the Peace Pledge Union talking about pacifism and their views on Armistice Day.

As you might expect, it was controversial and support from listeners was scarce (although not non-existent). Nor did I agree with much of it, being both too cowardly to fight and too cowardly to conscientiously object. His stance was countered too by a representative from the Royal British Legion who – rightly – challenged a remark about veterans “marching with medals planning their next war”.

But it must be very easy to do straightforward and predictable pieces of radio for such occasions and this showed original thought. Well done BBC Nottingham.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Musical Brum

We've been to see the CBSO doing Holst's The Planets tonight at Symphony Hall.

The CBSO are always fabulous but tonight's performance was especially enjoyable. I do like The Planets and the CBSO are one of the biggest of Birmingham's plus points.

A few observations:

The ICC is a very dull building on the outside but from an architectural point of view it really does work! Symphony Hall is as brilliant today as it was when it opened.

We were almost caught in traffic heading to the NIA to see Muse. Never heard of them but I suppose that comes from inhabiting Jelfworld!

And finally, the first part of the evening saw the orchestra doing Grieg's Piano Concerto. I defy anyone to listen to that without thinking about Morecambe & Wise and Andre Preview!

Monday, 9 November 2009

Vorwärts in Einheit

So twenty years ago today, the amazing events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall came to pass. One of those occasions when |I have literally felt as though I was living through history.

I have treasured connections with Germany spanning four decades but for half of that time, the division of the country seemed as permanent as it was intractable. Then the era of Gorbachev, Perestroika and its now-forgotten precursor Glasnost cam along and All Things Were Possible.

The trickle of “refugees”, first via Hungary and Austria, became a torrent with West German politicians revising their “all Easterners are welcome here” in favour of “all are welcome but not all at once”!

I had gone on an organised group trip to look at the tram systems in Braunschweig and Hanover and we were staying in an hotel in Hildesheim. As the evening wore on, reports on the television in the bar gradually became a continuous news programme. Only a couple of us spoke reasonable German and as the scenes unfolded people kept asking us to explain what was going on. We could scarcely believe what we were hearing about “travel restrictions being eased”; it sounded as though the DDR government had “opened up” (as indeed they had) but so momentous was this that we weren’t sure we were understanding correctly.

The next day on the Autobahn we kept seeing little Trabants abandoned at the side of the road, where theu had run out of the two-stroke petrol we were told they needed.

Things were still in a state of flux when we left Germany a few days later. For a while , it looked as though the DDR might evolve into a democratic state but still a separate one. However, the tide of opinion and indeed of history was against this. Sentiment of Unity was unstoppable and the rest – of course – is history.

I would have loved, dearly loved, to have been in Berlin that night. But being in Germany at all was enough.

The Europe of today is not by any means perfect. But it – like Germany - is far the better for its unity.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Thoughts for Remembrance Sunday

This is the day of the year when all our thoughts turn to the sacrifices, the suffering, the pain and the downright obscenity of war.

Ironically, the idea of a formalised “Remembrance” was born out of the “never again” attitude of the general population after the First World War, that “war to end wars” which was nothing of the sort.

As the years have rolled by, the idea of Remembrance at this time in November became more and more detached in the public eye from reality, an abstract remembrance of a conflict long ago which many of us were lucky not to have experienced and for which we were thankful.

Occasionally, man’s inhumanity to man surfaced, with conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Falklands; but generally we assumed that the era of conventional warfare was drawing to a close. With the end of the Cold War (and did I really watch the Berlin wall come down on a German TV report in Hildesheim 20 years ago this month?) world peace seemed assured.

How wrong we were. Incredibly, today we find ourselves witnessing bodies being flown back from Afghanistan with relentless regularity and – perhaps less publicly – a stream of servicemen (and women) injured, sometimes horribly and for whom their life will be changed for ever. These people, whose commitment and bravery exceeds anything I have inside me, give their all for a struggle which is not even fully understood or supported back home, making their lives even more difficult. It is they and the families of those lost that most need the ongoing work of the wonderful Royal British Legion, work concerned at least as much with the welfare of the living and the honour of the dead.

Every year the Legion exhorts us to “Wear Your Poppy With Pride”. I always have done; but this year that pride is both real and abiding.

Two minutes of reflection on the sacrifice of others is worthy but insufficient.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Aston Hall (again!)

When I took my US group to see the outside of Aston Hall last Thursday, I was surprised and delighted to have a member of staff there come out to us and ask if we’d like to have a look in the (locked) garden. This, like the Hall, is closed at this time of year but – with the recent restoration – he was obviously very keen to show off whatever he could of the place. “Money well spent” he chipped in when I told the group that it was partially Lottery-funded. And he was right.

I’ve been very negative about some aspects of tourism in Birmingham lately but this rather bucked the trend. He was young and Asian and I was (but shouldn’t have been) surprised to see someone like that enthuse about a Jacobean country house and its garden. This says more about me than him and I’m happy to show my gratitude for his eagerness in public.

This sort of enthusiasm comes with a new project and if you get everyone on side it can really pay dividends. It took me back to the heady years of 1992 and the small team of us starting up the Guide Friday open top bus tours in Birmingham. We were just like that: we loved what we were doing and felt terribly positive about it. Those were the days!

A few more people like him and Aston Hall will be one of the jewels of Birmingham again.

Thoughts on a Saturday Morning

(1) I’ve just seen the new garden fence next door have had built a week ago. (I’ve not been at home in daylight for a week!)

(2) I’ve started thinking in American English, due to working with the US group all week. Suddenly I’m thinking about “Cellphones” for mobiles, “Sidewalks” for pavements, “Buses” for coaches and “Beets” for Beetroot!

I need a French group urgently……. :-)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Yanks a Million!

I’ve been missing from BlogWorld for a while as I’ve been working pretty much continuously this week with an American group throughout the Midlands.

It’s been a very busy week, characterised by a series of very early starts to get to their base at Catton Hall on the Derbyshire Staffordshire border. However, hard work though it was, things were made considerably more pleasant by two other factors.

Firstly, they were a very pleasant group, largely the “accompanying persons” of a group taking part in a sort of Edwardian Shooting holiday.

Secondly (and most unusually) they had asked me to more or less concoct an itinerary for them myself. Unusual this might have been but it did mean that there were none of those ridiculously crowded days with impossible-to-achieve deadlines and skipping past places to say that you’ve “been there” rather than “seen it”.

A review of the group’s week gives an “interesting” insight into the world that is tourism in the Heart of England…….

On Monday went to explore Old Shropshire, with visits to Shrewsbury and Ludlow. These are two places I think are amongst the loveliest towns in the Midlands and deserve to be explored just as much as the Strafords and the Warwicks. If the group went anywhere because I put it in, then this was the day!

It was up into Derbyshire and the Peak District National Park on Tuesday for a visit to Chatsworth, the “Palace of the Peak”. This was somewhere the group themselves chose to go, although I did add an Ian flourish by calling in at Buxton on the way up. Chatsworth is, of course, superb, although it was fully decorated for Christmas and I find it very difficult to be festive in, er, November.

Wednesday saw an unashamed assault on Tourist Central, going on a tour of Stratford-upon-Avon in the morning and a ride around the Cotswolds in the afternoon. Bizarrely, though, both were curiously deserved, even for November. I don’t think the group knew it but they were seeing it as quiet as it’s ever going to be!

I a little bemused that – despite free time in Stratford – no-one went into the Birthplace! Still, they found places to eat drink and shop and what keeps them happy keeps me happy!

It was back to Shropshire on Thursday for a look at the Iron Bridge and then the rest of the day at the recently-extended Blist’s Hill Victorian Town. The latter was awash with school groups and some of the staff seemed a little surprised to see a non-school group there.

I think it's fair to say they were less "blown away" by Blist's Hill than other groups I've taken there but it did give our transatlantic visitors the chance to learn about our pre-decimal money, though, which is as big a challenge for them to understand as Cricket!

And that brought us to today, another unashamedly “Ian” day, as I took them on a ride around Birmingham and a visit to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. On the way back we called into Lichfield to have a look at the Cathedral, the Lichfield Gospels and the newly-discovered Lichfield Angel.

And do you know, that was the only time all week that they found themselves outside in any rain? Everywhere else, it rained when on the coach and stopped as we left.

Whatever magical meteorological power it is that these people have, I want some of it. Could do with a few more like these, I tell you!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

All the Gs: Groups, Gardens, Gold and Generalising

Do you ever get the feeling that – as you finish one task-in-hand – two more pop up to replace it?

That’s certainly the feeling I’ve had today. Completing a whole host of documents for the accountant (Why do I have to do all this work? It’s like cleaning up before the cleaner arrives!) I’ve now found myself with two new tour routes to measure out for some very diverse groups I have coming, a project to complete for a course I’m doing, e-mails to reply to and – more mundanely – a garden fence to get built.

The garden fence is as a result of us having had all the leylandii cleared from the back garden. The term “garden” though is a very approximate one at the moment. Even the wreck of a lawn we had is now buried until several tons of sawdust and assorted twigs. We’ve discovered that the garden is longer than we thought and that previous occupants used the top part as a dumping ground. The stuff “buried” there is incredible, at least in volume. I’m wondering whether or not to get a metal detector and see if there’s anything left over from the Anglo-Saxon conquest of Smethwick in the 6th century…….

Monday, 26 October 2009

Heritage in Store

I went on a behind the scenes visit to the amazing Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery Collection Centre (ie store) in Nechells today.

The place – which is occasionally open to the public – is an amazing repository of all the things there’s no place to show at the other City Museums. To say that there’s a “variety” there is a monumental understatement. Full size traction engines and the statue of George Dawson which used to adorn Edmund Street rub shoulders with Matchbox cars and early electric irons, while lathes and a wooden carousel horse jostle for space with a model of the town hall and a (full size) Sinclair C5!

Some of the items have never been on display anywhere as there’s never been room. Others are there as a result of changes to displays and – ominously – because of the closure of the Museum of Science & Industry and its “replacement” (ha!) with “Think Tank”. The lines of cars and motorcycles, together with the old Birmingham Corporation battery-electric dustcart, were nostalgically reminiscent of the Science Museum. You almost found yourself looking around for the “City of Birmingham” locomotive to start moving along on the hour…….

More things will probably end up in the store as galleries at the Museum & Art Gallery are gradually changed. A new Birmingham Gallery is due (and is long overdue) but this will probably displace yet more stuff to Nechells.

When the store is opened (on a couple of weekends per year and at other times for private group bookings) it is immensely popular. This – like the recent queues to see the Staffordshire Hoard – suggest that there is great appetite for this sort of Museum in the area. We have endured trends in recent years away from “traditional” museums with exhibits lined up ion favour of more “trendy” ways of imparting knowledge. In fact, it seems to me that a lot of the “traditional” stuff is the most popular with people and somehow strikes a chord with them.

I have a great idea. Why not transfer the stuff in store to a new building in the centre of the City. I’m sure they could find a site. There’s a vacant site in Newhall Street that would fit the bill and there’s not a lot in the old Elkington’s Electro-Plating works next to it at the moment. Then you could open the “store” more frequently. Say, er, every day.

You know what? People would love it. And no, my tongue isn’t entirely in my cheek saying this…….


PS I was wondering where the giant turtle shell from Aston Hall had gone. It was in a corner there!

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Britain and the Hospitality Industry

What is it about service in Britain that’s so difficult?

After I finished a walking tour in Glastonbury yesterday some of us (twelve initially) headed into a pub for a drink and a bite to eat.

Now admittedly the manageress (?) on seeing so many of us said that we could sit in the (empty) restaurant and order from the bar menu. Great; nice gesture. But once it became apparent that we wanted to pay separately (uh, yeah?) we suddenly seemed to become A Problem.

Things were compounded when four other people from the tour spotted us and came in to join us. Suddenly we were somewhat accusingly told that we were “more than twelve”.

Then we were told that we needed to order food via her (“because the kitchen wouldn’t be able to cope”). Even drinks had to be ordered via her (“because the bar wouldn’t be able to cope”; what kind of bar is this?! We could then only pay at the bar if she was herself in attendance (“as the bar wouldn’t understand what we were paying for”).

Yes, okay, suddenly there were a lot of people all wanting to order. But you know what? No-one else seemed to be eating in this place at all. The alternative is that no-one comes in. Hey, wouldn’t that be better eh? Service provision is so much easier if there are no customers.

I’ve seen this in quite a few places when handling groups, even quite “informal” ones. Turn up in Australia or Germany under these circumstances and people Work Out a Way of Doing It. Turn up in Britain (or France, actually) and suddenly you’re a nuisance.

Aston Hall

We’ve been to the recently reopened and refurbished Aston Hall this afternoon.

The Hall has always been one of Birmingham’s best attractions. In spite of its unashamedly urban setting it is – by any standards – a superb example of a 17th century country house and a very fine, ostentatious one at that.

It would be fair to say, though, that it has not been treated well by the City in recent years. Other - dare I say “sexier” - attractions came along (Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Think Tank, Soho House) and poor old Aston Hall rather managed to get taken for granted. I often found myself wishing that it was in the custody of the National Trust who frankly have more experience of dealing with such important (and fragile) buildings.

Well, after a major injection of Lottery money and a great deal of hard work Aston Hall is now open again and looking better than ever. A great deal of thought has gone into presentation (I loved the “how was it built?” and “what is it made of?” displays) and I revelled in it. There are also more rooms open and the place has a “quality” feel about it.

Aston Hall was one of the first places I was taken on a school trip (in 1973, when I was at primary school). For that reason it’s always had a special place in my heart and I’m very pleased to have an old friend “back”.

Negative points? Only a few niggles.:

  • The staff were, dare I say it, more “enthusiastic” than “knowledgeable”
  • The café and shop had very poor selections of things (a pity that, as admission is free so they need some way to extract funds from visitors!)
  • And there was a distinctly “artificial” attempt to introduce subjects like slavery and Middle Eastern design techniques to make the place seem more “relevant to “today’s Aston”. It is a 17th century provincial English mansion; that’s all it needs to be and that is its story. If we want to look at an international or multicultural city (and plainly we should) then there are better places to tell that story.

All in all though, great. The Hall is only open until 1 November (like most of the branch Museums) but there are openings for Aston Hall by Candlelight from 2 – 12 December) which is always splendid.

Go as soon as you can!

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Back Home

Well, we're back home from a lovely (and it was lovely) week in Paris.

We went there and back by Eurostar (slumming it in Standard Class this time, though; we spent the money one getting a centrally-located hotel instead). As ever for us, the journey was part of the holiday. Or rather it would have been if the handle on my suitcase hadn't broken early in the outward journey.

I might (if I ever get time) write up a fuller account of what we did. For now, though, the highlights were:





  • Letting Louise drag me to Disneyland and enjoying it. Mostly.

  • An evening dinner cruise on the Seine that must be one of the most romantic things we've ever done.

















  • Meeting up with our old friend and restaurateur Patrick and reliving some memories of me working a lot in Paris in the late nineties.
However, as I'm now back, there seems to be a whole raft of things to do. There are 136 e-mails for a start, although I suspect most of those are junk. Then we have to go to the optician's, to collect a mysterious parcel at the Post Office, see the respective mothers, collect the cat and the - just possibly - start taking a proper look at how many of the 800+ photos we've taken between us are actually usable!

The holiday was supposed to be a rest before as "busy time". I think I'm already realising that it has been.......
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